Dossier: Strong mind

Tips against feeling down

Sometimes life runs like clockwork, but other times it doesn’t always go to plan. Everyone feels down at some point. But there’s no need to fret if this mood passes you by. Experts explain how you can shake off these low moods – or even prevent them in the first place.

Text: Julie Freudiger; Photo: Sanitas

We don’t constantly live on cloud 9. When you feel under strain, whether through everyday stress, family conflict or job loss, it can affect your mood. This is normal, as we all experience times of crises in our lives. Most of the time, we find our own way out of these emotional lows after a few hours or days, especially if we actively do something about it. But if you remain in this downward spiral week after week, it can result in depression. The boundaries between mental health and mental illness are fluid. On one side of the mental health scale we have the stresses and strains, and on the other, things that do us good and boost our resources. If the stresses and strains outweigh the good stuff, then we find ourselves down in the dumps. In such cases, it is vital to replenish our resources quickly in order to restore balance. Incidentally, if we feel balanced, we are better able to withstand stress. This is why we should boost our mental defences even when we are feeling good.

Pull yourself out of a low mood

If the feelings of sadness, irritability, lack of energy and endless circling thoughts don’t disappear after two days at the latest, you should take action, advises Liliana Paolazzi from the Pro Mente Sana foundation, which has been helping people with mental health problems for over 40 years. “We are not entirely at the mercy of our emotions. We can take a hands-on approach and change things.” 

Be comfortable in your own skin!

“The best thing you can do for yourself is to be happy in your own skin”, says Paolazzi. Of course it is easier said than done. It takes practice to admit your own weaknesses and accept that there are highs and lows in life. “Learn to laugh about your mistakes and focus on your strengths.”

Tip: Every evening, write down three things that you’ve done well. For example, if you made a good impression in a meeting or made a tasty pasta sauce. And note down three things that you are grateful for. This exercise helps you identify things you are good at. 

Have the courage to open up

You’ll feel better if you are able to open up about your worries and anxieties. Just formulating your thoughts aloud helps to make sense of them. “But don’t assume that others will notice your state of mind”, warns Paolazzi. So you have to actively seek dialogue with others. This sometimes takes courage, which leads us back to the first tip of accepting your weaknesses.

Tip: speak to someone you trust. This might be your closest friends, but doesn’t have to be. Sometimes it’s easier to talk to someone who has a bit of distance. 

Get moving

Paolazzi also recommends getting exercise, as exercise and sport are proven to lift the spirits. Exercise reduces levels of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline and in return stimulates the production of endorphins and serotonin. Sport also increases performance and boosts self-confidence. 

Tip: You don’t necessarily have to take up jogging or aerobics: any kind of exercise does you good. Choose something that you enjoy. And try to get more exercise in your daily routine. Take the stairs instead of the lift and ride your bike instead of driving. 

Learn something new

It helps if you stay curious and keep your mind active. This way you broaden your horizons and boost your self-esteem. Paolazzi says: “By learning something new, we stay inspired and it opens our eyes to other things in life.”

Tip: Find out what you would like to learn. A new language? Something about art? It doesn’t necessarily need to be a specific course: You could sign up for an online workshop, download an app or take a guided tour. 

Foster friendships

Studies show that friendships are important for your health and help to reduce the risk of depression. Interaction with other people also influences our perception of ourselves. Paolazzi: “People respond directly to our actions. If you smile at someone, they will smile back. And that boosts our confidence.”

Tip: Plan time with friends, colleagues and family – even if it takes some effort after a long day at work. And spend a whole day being friendly and smiling at people. See how people react

Get help

It’s not always easy to ask for and accept help. Paolazzi explains: “Taking care of your mental health is about taking responsibility for yourself.” When you’re feeling low, you don’t necessarily need to see a psychotherapist. Small steps often help, such as giving up things that become too much. 

Tip: Make a note of what needs to be done and what you absolutely have to do. What can you leave to someone else? For example, perhaps a tax advisor could do your tax return, a cleaner could spruce up your flat, or a colleague could update the Excel sheet. 

Make time to relax

Our body needs time to relax and recharge its batteries. “But relaxation doesn’t mean sitting in front of the TV for hours”, says Paolazzi. There’s nothing wrong with a film night every now and again, but it is no substitute for conscious moments of relaxation. We underestimate the power of sleep. Most people need seven to eight hours of sleep – less is simply not enough in most cases. 

Tip: Prioritise time off and enter it into your diary, whether it be a trip to the sauna, meditation or a massage. Taking mini breaks throughout the day also helps. Incorporate several one-minute breaks into your working day for example: Breathe in for four seconds and out for six. This extended exhalation activates the parasympathetic nervous system. 

Get out in the fresh air

Get out in the fresh airFresh air and nature have a positive impact on our mental health. Various studies will back up what many people will tell you from their own experience. A 2019 study conducted by the University of Michigan showed that just 20 to 30 minutes of fresh air can dramatically reduce the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the body – the healing power of nature. 

Tip: Combine strategies: Do sport outdoors, meet friends for a picnic or talk about your problems while going for a walk. 

No one-size-fits-all solution

We all have our own preferences and ways to replenish energy levels.  You simply need to find out what you enjoy and what does you good. But this can be difficult when you’re feeling low. Psychotherapist Anna Beer-Heuberger comes across this a lot: “Many of my clients first have to understand how they’re feeling. Tuning in to your feelings, thoughts and actions is sometimes easier said than done.” It can be helpful to observe your own patterns of thought and behaviour. Do you constantly have the same thoughts? Do you keep finding yourself in the same situation? Negative thoughts can be replaced or substituted with positive ones. Beer-Heuberger recommends that you don’t set your goals too high. Strategies to give your mood a boost should be precise and, above all, realistic. “If I’m not able to take three weeks’ holiday, then maybe three days are possible.”

We don’t all experience the same highs and lows 

“We all feel low occasionally, but some people are more prone to feel low than others,” says Beer-Heuberger. There are several reasons for this, such as difficult experiences in the past or the influence of role models. If parents only see the negative side of things, don’t take any time for themselves or tend to feel sad, this can affect their child and the way it handles stress. External factors can also exacerbate feelings of frustration and helplessness. The corona pandemic is currently the big issue in psychologist practices: “Many people feel helpless due to the current restrictions.” If someone has too few resources, they are more likely to have trouble lifting their spirits. 

There isn’t one single factor that triggers a low, says Beer-Heuberger. Genetics, personal resources and your social environment all play a role. These three aspects can vary markedly depending on the person. “You can’t do anything about your genetics, but you can shape how you perceive things and how you organise your daily life and social environment.” This realisation is essential in order to be able to emerge from this lethargy. If your low mood persists, it is advisable to seek professional help,” says the psychologist. But she emphasizes that: “Feeling low is part and parcel of life. We have to learn how to deal with it.”

Low mood vs depression: what’s the difference?

Feeling low is a temporary emotional episode that usually lasts a few hours or up to several days and is a normal reaction to stress. Depression, on the other hand, is a psychological disorder that continues over a prolonged period or occurs repeatedly. People suffering from depression struggle to handle every day situations and are not able to cope under pressure. The scale ranges from mild to severe depression. Typical signs are: 

  • Low mood and listlessness
  • Lack of interest, no ability to feel joy and pleasure
  • Sleeplessness and loss of appetite
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Persistent sadness to the point of hopelessness
  • Emotional, mental and physical exhaustion
  • Problems concentrating
  • Feelings of guilt and worthlessness
  • Lowered self-esteem and self-confidence
  • Suicidal thoughts

People who experience these symptoms or aspects of them for more than two weeks should seek psychotherapeutic support. 

Liliana Paolazzi studied psychology and is responsible for counselling at Pro Mente Sana. Pro Mente Sana is an independent organisation for mental health in Switzerland. It offers support and advice to affected persons, relatives and professionals on psychosocial and legal issues relating to mental illness and health. 

Anna Katharina Beer-Heuberger (M.Sc.) is a psychologist specialising in psychotherapy (FSP) and a federally recognised psychotherapist. At her practice in Zurich she advises mainly individuals and couples. She specialises in depression, burn-out and adjustment disorders.